Healthy eating can lead to major improvements in health and well-being.
However, for some people, the focus on healthy eating can become an eating disorder known as orthorexia.
Like other feeding and eating disorders, orthorexia is a psychological condition, and a treatment plan designed by health professionals is often required to overcome it.
What is orthorexia?
Orthorexia, or orthorexia nervosa, is an eating disorder that involves an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating.
Unlike other eating disorders, orthorexia mostly revolves around food quality — not quantity. People with orthorexia are generally not focused on losing weight (1).
Instead, they have an extreme fixation with the purity of their foods, as well as an obsession with the benefits of healthy eating.
A few years ago, orthorexia was in the media spotlight because of Jordan Younger, a successful blogger with more than 70,000 Instagram followers.
She shocked everyone by describing how her motivation to eat healthy became obsessive to the point of malnutrition.
Orthorexia is beginning to be recognized by the medical community, although it has not been officially defined as an eating disorder by the American Psychiatric Association or Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).
The term was first coined in 1997 by the American physician Steven Bratman and derived from “orthos,” which is Greek for “right.”
SUMMARYOrthorexia nervosa is an eating disorder that involves an obsession with healthy eating and optimal nutrition.
What causes orthorexia?
Someone may begin making lifestyle changes by altering their diet to simply improve their health, but in those who develop orthorexia, this focus can become more extreme.
Research on the causes of orthorexia is scarce, but obsessive-compulsive tendencies and former or current eating disorders are known risk factors (2Trusted Source, 3Trusted Source).
Other risk factors include tendencies toward perfectionism, high anxiety, or a need for control (4Trusted Source, 5Trusted Source).
Several studies also report that individuals focused on health for their career may have a higher risk of developing orthorexia.
Frequent examples include healthcare workers, opera singers, ballet dancers, symphony orchestra musicians, and athletes (5Trusted Source, 6Trusted Source, 7, 8Trusted Source, 9Trusted Source).
The risk may also depend on age, gender, education level, and socioeconomic status, but more research is needed before conclusions can be reached (2Trusted Source).
SUMMARYThe causes of orthorexia are not well known, but certain personality and occupational risk factors have been identified.
How common is orthorexia?
In some cases, it can be hard to tell the difference between orthorexia and a general concern with healthy eating.
For this reason, it is hard to determine how common orthorexia is. The rates reported in studies range from 6–90%. Part of this is also because the diagnostic criteria are not universally agreed upon (10Trusted Source).
In addition, the criteria don’t assess whether the behaviors negatively impact the person’s social, physical, or mental health, which are crucial components of orthorexia.
Enthusiasm for healthy eating only becomes orthorexia when it turns into an obsession that negatively affects everyday life, such as extreme weight loss or a refusal to eat out with friends.
When taking these negative effects into account, orthorexia rates drop to less than 1%, which is much more in line with the rates of other eating disorders (10Trusted Source).
SUMMARYEnthusiasm for a healthy diet only becomes orthorexia when it starts to negatively affect physical, social, or mental health.
How is orthorexia diagnosed?
To make the distinction between healthy eating and orthorexia clearer, Steven Bratman and Thomas Dunn co-authored an article on the following two-part diagnostic criteria (11):
1. An obsessive focus on healthy eating
The first part is an obsessive focus on healthy eating that involves exaggerated emotional distress related to food choices. This can include the following:
- Behaviors or thoughts. This involves compulsive behaviors or mental preoccupations with dietary choices believed to promote optimal health.
- Self-imposed anxiety. Breaking self-imposed dietary rules may cause anxiety, shame, fear of disease, sense of impurity, or negative physical sensations.
- Severe restrictions. Dietary restrictions can escalate over time and include the elimination of entire food groups and addition of cleanses, fasts, or both.
2. Behavior that disrupts daily life
The second part is compulsive behavior that prevents normal daily functioning. This can happen through any of the following ways:
- Medical issues. These can include malnutrition, severe weight loss, or other medical complications.
- Lifestyle disruption. A person may experience personal distress or difficult social or academic functioning due to beliefs or behaviors related to healthy eating.
- Emotional dependence. This includes when body image, self-worth, identity, or satisfaction is excessively dependent on complying with self-imposed dietary rules.
SUMMARYOne diagnostic framework for orthorexia looks for an obsessive focus on healthy eating and behaviors that disrupt daily life.
The negative health effects linked to orthorexia generally fall under one of the following three categories:
1. Physical effects
Although studies on orthorexia are limited, the condition is likely to lead to many of the same medical complications associated with other eating disorders.
These physical complications can be life threatening and should not be underestimated.
SUMMARYOrthorexia is expected to result in medical complications similar to those associated with other eating disorders.
2. Psychological effects
Individuals with orthorexia can experience intense frustration when their food-related habits are disrupted.
Outside of meals, extra time might be spent researching, cataloging, weighing or measuring food, or planning future meals.
Recent research reports that this ongoing preoccupation with food and health is linked to a weaker working memory (4Trusted Source, 15).
Those with orthorexia are less likely to perform well on tasks requiring flexible problem-solving skills. They also are less able to maintain focus on their surrounding environment, including people (4Trusted Source, 15).
SUMMARYA constant preoccupation with healthy eating can have negative psychological effects and is linked to impaired brain function.
3. Social effects
Individuals with orthorexia don’t like to give up control when it comes to food (2Trusted Source).
They also often follow strict, self-imposed rules dictating which foods can be combined in a sitting or eaten at particular times of the day (2Trusted Source).
Such rigid eating patterns can make it challenging to take part in normal social activities revolving around food, such as dinner parties or eating out.
Additionally, intrusive food-related thoughts and the tendency to regard their food habits as superior may further complicate social interactions (4Trusted Source).
This can lead to social isolation, which seems to be common among people experiencing orthorexia (2Trusted Source, 3Trusted Source).
SUMMARYRigid eating patterns, intrusive food-related thoughts, and feelings of moral superiority can have negative social effects.
The consequences of orthorexia can be as severe as those of other eating disorders.
If left untreated, they can result in irreversible damage to health.
The first step in overcoming orthorexia is identifying its presence.
This can be challenging, as individuals who have this disorder often fail to recognize any of its negative effects on health, well-being, or social function.
Once the problem has been recognized, help should be sought from a multidisciplinary team of health professionals, such as one that includes a doctor, psychologist, and dietitian.
Common treatments include exposure and response prevention, behavior modification, cognitive restructuring, and various forms of relaxation training.
However, the effectiveness of these treatments for orthorexia has not been scientifically confirmed (4Trusted Source).
Finally, education about scientifically valid nutrition information may also help people with orthorexia challenge their beliefs about food (16Trusted Source).
SUMMARYThere are several ways to treat orthorexia. Seeking help from a health professional is strongly recommended.
The bottom line
Being mindful of your diet and its effect on your health is generally regarded as a good thing.
However, for some people, there’s a fine line between healthy eating and an eating disorder.
If a person’s current healthy diet negatively affects their health, psychological well-being, or social life, their focus on health may have morphed into orthorexia.